Training for the Mont Blanc Marathon

If you wanted to choose your first running challenge would you chose this iconic mountain marathon to start with? One of our clients did and this is what we learnt over the last year in getting him ready for the distance, height gain and technical terrain.

First things first

To be honest most of us are physically moulded by furniture, gravity and inactivity. Office work, social media, driving, TV – we can’t help it.  Thing is it leads to muscle imbalances and movement deficiencies which is generally why we see runners out there with slightly awkward styles.

Before we started the training programme we checked basic running technique. We filmed (iphone) a run to look for imbalances, feet striking the ground and the position and movement of arms.

If you wanted to do this too get a friend to video you. There is plenty of good practice technique videos on the web to help with your analysis.

To take this further you could also get your gait analysed. Many running shops offer this service for free.

For more specialist advice see a Corrective Exercise Specialist. They’ll identify where you need to release, stretch and strengthen your muscles to address your imbalances and to prevent future injury. These guys are the bees knees.

Building up the miles

We started with the 5km parkruns. A completely different discipline to an endurance event I know but it helped in establishing the running habit and was a great way to engage with the running community.

Over time we built distance and height gain. We spent a lot of evenings pouring over maps to plan routes for the latter.

Once we gained fitness and confidence we entered races to mark milestone distances and height. Meeting a like-minded community gave us a big boost and we could see how we were getting on compared to others. Our favourite was the Cheddar Cheese Race. What a great atmosphere, route and post-race selection of homemade cakes. Never underestimate the power of the cake!

Then it came to that tricky subject of recovery runs. I’m not sure that I am a great believer however I do think that a lower intensity run the day after an exhaustive run works for building endurance.  Instead of a run we Nordic walked for a couple of hours. The poles are fantastic for reducing the intensity of the leg workout.

Train using your heart rate zones

If you want to maximize your training effort as well as avoid pushing too hard during the race then switch to using heart rate zones as your main training aid.

For endurance events one of the key considerations is your lactate threshold. This is where your energy system switches from being purely aerobic to anaerobic. The latter produces lactate as a by-product and your threshold is where lactate is first seen rising exponentially in your blood.

The aim of training is to shift your lactate threshold so that you are getting more speed and output before you reach it.

We got our lactate threshold measured and had our heart rate zones calculated around this. Over 80% of our training was in our heart rate zones 1and 2 and occasionally popping into heart rate zone 3.

It felt odd using this approach to start with. On our first run uphill we had to walk to keep in zone 2. We kept going with this approach though and it has paid dividends.

We can now run uphill relatively easily in zone 2 – so the training certainly pays off.  When we were firing up the hills in zones 3, 4 and 5 our legs were jelly by the time we reached the top. Now they are ready for more.

Should you estimate or measure your heart rate zones?

We started off using an estimate of the heart rate zones using 220 minus age and then took the usual percentages of this to estimate zones.

Once we really got going with this training approach though we did start to wonder just how accurate the estimates were and curiosity got the better of us.

We took ourselves along to Bath University’s Sports Department for tests. They are awesome guys and we ended up knowing for sure where our personal running training needs were based on our measured lactate threshold and VO2 max. We used this religiously as the base for our further training.

Just to answer an obvious question - we did find fairly significant differences between our measured and estimated heart rate zones. So for the relatively small cost, if you are serious, do get your heart rate zones measured by the professionals.

Listen to your body

Our client is 49. The key to his success was as much in the quality of his rest as the quality of his runs.

There is no getting away from the fact that the further away from the twenties you are the more rest you need between runs. A lot of the marathon training programmes out there are not designed for the older runner so if you are in your late forties and beyond don’t be tempted by them unless you are already a seasoned runner. You’ll just end up running too often.

Think quality over quantity.

In our schedule we ran once a week pushing the distance and/or height gain and after an exhaustive run we did a 2 hour Nordic walk the following day with a couple of shorter runs on the days in between. Just think of it all in terms of volume (time running or distance), intensity (speed/hills) and frequency (how many time a week you run).

The most important thing is to listen to your body and not to follow someone elses plan.

Rest your legs uphill using Nordic pole technique

The correct use of poles uphill has been a great learning for us. We have seen many runners simply using them for balance but as Nordic walking instructors we are absolutely convinced of the huge benefit they can bring to propelling the runner uphill. On every run uphill our legs felt stronger at the top than without the poles.

So let your upper body take the strain. Learn the correct technique. Plant the poles at 45 degrees so they strike the ground behind you and use your core, triceps and lats to push against them and propel yourself forward. Seek out a local Nordic walking instructor and learn the correct technique and gain a great advantage for your running.

Always check with your event first that poles are allowed.

Retail therapy

You’ve got to admit it, getting the kit is part of the fun – although it is a technical minefield out there.

Mountain trail running demands the right kit. Here’s what we used:

  • Shoes: Salomon Speedcross 3 – super grippy and 100% confidence on the trails
  • Shorts: Compressport – really help support your leg muscles on the downhills
  • Running vest: Ultimate Direction SJ Ultravest 2 – it doesn’t budge when you run.
  • Water bottles: Ultimate Direction or OMM Body Bottle – easy to squeeze on the go.
  • Poles: Leki Micro Trail Pro – light and strong but make sure you get the right size
  • Analytics: Garmin Fenix 3 (plus running heart rate band) – your analytics never lie and are a great way of monitoring and improving performance.

Train in the right environment

If you are going to run a mountain marathon then there is only limited benefits in doing too much of your training on the flat.

This was perhaps one of the hardest parts to address. We live in the Marlborough Downs and so re-creating the French Alps was always going to need a little creativity. Here’s how we did it:

  • Find routes for height gain

We had to prepare ourselves for a continuous 1000m of ascent which we not even remotely going to find in Wiltshire.

Our training therefore focused heavily on hill repeats and finding routes with the highest cumulative totals. We used OS maps online to trace out a route to find the height gain. There are apps out there that will do the same.

Ideally you want to find a local path on a hill where you can get a height gain of 100m in every 1km of running. If you really do live in the flatlands then a treadmill with an incline at a local gym or finding stairwells that you can pace up and down will suffice until you can get into the real hills. Otherwise think about running with some added resistance. Tyre dragging gives you a great workout!

We also took a few trips to the Brecon Beacons (our local mountains) for longer uphill sections. Then two weeks ahead of the race we based ourselves in Chamonix to put it all into practice on the continuous climbs and those awe inspiring views Again it was great to be a part of the trail running community there – with the real mountain goats.

  • Practice good downhill technique

Good downhill technique uses quick strides. You don’t want the quad busting longer stride.  Keep your contact with the ground short and light and use your upper body and poles for balance. Keep practicing.

  • Find rough terrain

The mountain trails are full of ankle biters. You’ll need to seek out rougher routes to run on. We picked up some pitying looks from folks as we avoided the decent paths and ran over the rough terrain to get used to running on it. Sometimes you just need a tee-shirt explaining what you are doing and why.

  • Altitude

When you arrive at Chamonix at 1000m above sea-level you can even feel heavier legs even on your first walk to the micro-brewery. We spent two weeks in the mountains around Chamonix and walking and running in the mountains to get acclimatized first.

  • Nutrition and hydration

Does gut rot, bloating or dehydration sound familiar? The culprit is usually eating and drinking too little or too much.

We highly recommend the philosophy of Scratch Labs – .

Essentially, drink no more than a 4% carbohydrate solution. If you need more calories make this up with real food. For some great recipe ideas and some hard core science behind their philosophy and for calculating your carbohydrate and hydration needs read Feed Zone Portables by Biju Thomas and Allen Lim.

We use SCRATCH Labs hydration mix. Their lemon and lime is awesome.

Other important things

The areas of warming up, cooling down, self myofascial release, stretching and strengthening seems to generate a lot of debate and confusion amongst runners and amateur athletes alike.

As a personal trainer and corrective exercise student here’s what we know.

  • Before you start your run

Warm up - spend at least 5 minutes warming up, slow-paced walking is fine. The aim is to get your heart rate up slowly and to get the body ready for exercise.

Mobilise – the joints that you are going to be using (ankles, quads, hamstrings, core) to get the joints working and stimulate the release of synovial fluids to oil the joints and prevent injury.

  • When you finish your run

Cool down - walk for 5 minutes or so until your heart rate nears resting. During the cooling down process your blood redistributes itself and avoids pooling.   Waste products such as lactic acid are removed from your muscles and processed.

Stretch - use static stretches (not dynamic stretches) to stretch the muscles you have used. It feels good and it increases flexibility.

  • Self myofascial release (rolling)

This is pain well worth it. Buy yourself a roller and just do it.

Why? Poor technique and repetitive movements like running can create inflammation and very small muscle spasms which results in knots or trigger points. These affect flexibility and can lead to muscle imbalances and potential injury. Self myofascial release techniques (rolling) help in releasing these microspasms. It’s painful as hell to start with but focusing on calves, quads, hamstrings and the ITB band will pay dividends to staying on the trail and injury free.

  • Strengthen core and legs

I know, I know. It’s hard to fit too much else into your schedule if most of your spare time is spent running. Or that’s the excuse anyway.

We did our rolling and strengthening exercises in front of the TV and it only takes a few minutes each time.

Stronger legs and core equal economy of running and keeping your pelvis aligned which is all important for preventing hamstring pulls, lower back pain and Achilles problems. This is really important for trail running. There are lots of strengthening exercises on the web so we won’t go into it here.

Be inspired

Trail running is all about getting into the great outdoors and getting a lungful of fresh air. It’s the best antidote to modern living. It’s also a great way to explore more of what’s around you.

We used the opportunity to explore what we have in our local environs - the Marlborough Downs. Despite spending years travelling all over the world to walk, climb, run and bike we have rediscovered what’s right on our doorstep.

The great thing is that you can also trail run anywhere in the world in some truly inspiring places. The Mont Blanc Marathon in Chamonix is one of those. The views from this marathon are some of the best in the world. Serrated blue-white glaciers looming over the valley, spiralling peaks, awesome trails and an outdoor vibe along the Chamonix Valley that will resonate with every stride you take.


Don’t miss it.

Written by: Lisa Drewe on 21 Jun 2016, 11:34 AM



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